* Summits, tournament open tiny nation’s doors to the world
* Talk of reforms unlikely to lead to fundamental change
* Focus on succession - when and who to follow Obiang?
By David Lewis
MALABO, July 20 (Reuters) - Hosting summits and Africa’s top soccer tournament will gradually force Equatorial Guinea to ease some restrictions in the secretive state, but political reforms to make the country more open and democratic are far off.
The main question hanging over the politics of the oil-and gas-producing nation is how long President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo will stay in power and who — probably from within his family or clan — will take over once he steps aside or dies.
Africa’s sole former Spanish colony tends to elicit extreme views. Detractors depict it as a quintessentially corrupt and brutal oil state while its leadership and backers complain such criticism is lazy, outdated and exaggerated.
The reality, explained a diplomat posted to the sweaty island capital, Malabo, lies somewhere in-between.
“Obiang’s vision is one of (an) authoritarian welfare state, like the oil states of the Middle East. He hasn’t accomplished that,” the diplomat said, asking not to be named.
“It is going places. As quickly as it should be? Probably not. It is a dictatorship, an authoritarian state ... but the international portrayal is distorted,” he added.
Hosting this year’s African Union summit offered rare exposure on the international stage for a nation that became an international pariah under the brutal dictatorship of Francisco Macias Nguema, who was ousted by Obiang in 1979.
Latin American leaders will also get a glimpse of the six-lane highways, sparkling new government ministries and social housing projects paid for by billions of dollars in oil revenues when they sweep in for a summit later this year.
They are unlikely to visit poorer neighbourhoods, where not all have tasted development — despite World Bank figures from 2010 putting average income per head on a par with Saudi Arabia — and potholes eat into the tarmac and many still eke out a living from street-side stalls.
But the hosting of Africa’s Cup of Nations early next year, and the potential hordes of football fans rather than suited delegations, will test a nation isolated culturally and geographically and paranoid about both security and foreigners.
Obiang’s backers argue the nation has come a long way since life under Macias, when huge numbers of Equatoguineans fled abroad amid political killings, a cult of personality around the president and virulent anti-Spanish rhetoric at home.
Strides have been made in human rights, they say, citing steps like the freeing of political prisoners and signing earlier this year of a headquarters agreement with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).
Political parties are indeed allowed to operate. But they complain of harassment and, having won over 95 percent of the vote in the last presidential election in 2009, Obiang cannot say he faces serious challengers.
Those seeking another voice all traipse to the door of one man — Placido Mico of the Social Democratic Convergence and sole opposition member in a 100-seat parliament.
Mico, whose presence analysts say gives a veneer of plurality to politics, complains that oil funds have reduced any leverage outsiders have on issues like human rights.
Citing a parliamentary election in 1993 when at least 11 of 80 lawmakers were not in Obiang’s camp, he said the country was in fact now less democratic than before.
“Parliament doesn’t function. It only exists to approve propositions. There are debates but the results are known ahead of time. I cannot deliver results alone,” he told Reuters.
Obiang has set up a commission to look into political reforms, including potentially putting in place term limits, though details for now are scant.
Mico called the proposal a “masquerade”, saying political will, not new institutions, was needed to tackle corruption.
Obiang’s administration often complains that perceptions are outdated and based on information from critics in the diaspora with scores to settle, or an “uninformed” foreign press.
But there is no independent media in the country and while journalists are invited to visit, securing a visa and working once there is notoriously tricky. Ahead of the summit a German film crew was expelled and had most of its footage wiped after filming in poor neighbourhoods.
A U.S. public relations firm has been working hard to revamp the country’s image, though it is not immune to security fears either. During the summit, one of its photographers was briefly arrested for taking a photo of the conference centre.
Amid talk of Africa’s youth and the Arab Spring at the AU summit, Obiang welcomed calls for rights “where such claims are just” but warned of agents seeking to “manipulate the innocence and good faith of youth” to cause “sterile revolutions”.
“This is the case of my country ... which is victimised and besieged by a systematic campaign of misinformation by these agents.”
The planned introduction later this year of mobile internet access and the return home of more foreign-educated youth is likely to ease the flow of information and ideas. But there is no threat of the Arab Spring reaching the Gulf of Guinea.
After a 2004 plot involving British, South African and other foreign mercenaries was foiled, and a speedboat raid struck the heart of the capital in 2009, security, aided by advisers from the U.S., Morocco, Israel and France, is as tight as ever.
Observers say the key question is how much longer the 67 year-old leader will stay in power.
“It is the greatest destabilising issue, the uncertainty of succession,” said Alex Vines, head of the Africa programme at Chatham House think tank. “Because there is no open democratic process, it becomes even more intense.”
Teodorin Obiang, a son of the president’s who is the agriculture minister but is frequently accused of enjoying an extravagant lifestyle abroad with multi-million dollar mansions, jets and yachts, is seen by many as favourite.
Billboards in the capital seek to show him at work and in touch with the people, but diplomats and analysts cite his playboy lifestyle coupled with an uneasy relationship with elders in the tight power circles as causes for concern.
“When people come in and look at investing, (succession) is the number one thing people want to know about,” Vines added.
Editing by Giles Elgood h